Starbucks vs. Specialty Coffee: Which one is better?

For a considerable length of time, Starbucks coffee has been thought to be specialty coffee by certain schools of thought and regular customers. The truth is, Specialty coffees have been around longer, but many still wonder whether or not the two share similarities, and which one of them is the better type of coffee. Having been something of a coffee head most of my adult life, I have had my fair share of both, and I can, with a considerable amount of confidence, tell the two apart by a sip or two.

So, what sets these two types of prominent coffees apart, and which one of the two is better? Read on to find out!

What are the differences between Starbucks and Specialty Coffee?


Starbucks Coffee

Specialty Coffee

Coffee Grading

Ranges between 68 – 84.2 points

Ranges from 84.99 to 100 points

Taste Profile

Bitter from the darker roast, smoky and slightly woody

Light on the palate, has a balance between acidity and sweetness

Caffeine content/ Nutritional Value

360mg for every 16 fl oz of brewed coffee

188mg for every 16 fl oz of brewed coffee

Availability / Accessibility

Easily accessible in stores across the USA and other participating countries of the world

Not too easily accessible

Roast level

Darker roasts

Light roast


More acidic as a result of darker roast, but it is balanced

Less acidity which complements coffee taste when it is brewed


Nutty and flowery notes, as well as certain hints of herbiness, but duller than specialty coffee

Described as nutty, flowery, and herby, with hints of smokiness and freshness




Growing region (Origin)

Latin America, parts of Asia, and Africa

Kenya, Ethiopia, Colombia

Starbucks vs. Specialty Coffee – How they compare

Coffee Grading

When it comes to identifying the quality of coffee, a grading system is used. In essence, this system aims to identify the visual (for defects), textural, roast level, brewing quality, flavor, aroma, acidity, and other characteristics of the coffee. The maximum score for coffee is 100. To qualify as specialty coffee, a tested sample must score 84.99 and above.

Starbucks has different types of coffees that present different characteristics, especially those associated with roast level, acidity, flavor, and brewing quality. Many of these coffees have been graded, with the lowest scoring 68 out of 100, and the best scoring 84.2.

In comparison, specialty coffee, when subjected to all tests, meets all the criteria set for qualifying as such, with the lowest scoring 84.99 points. This means that specialty coffee presents a lighter roast, less acidity, excellent brewing quality, flavorful notes, and zero primary defects.

Specialty coffee is graded higher than all Starbucks coffees, making it the winner in this category.

Taste profile

Starbucks vs. Specialty Coffee

As earlier mentioned, Starbucks has an assortment of coffees, and most of them have different levels of roast. Many of these coffees lean towards darker roasts, and this gives the coffee a more pungent flavor. Some, like the French roast, are considered to be pretty dark, and many people have described its taste and flavor as smoky, acidic, and bitter. Other roasts, like the Starbucks blonde roast, are a lot lighter, however, and have a lighter, less pungent taste than others.

Specialty coffee, on the other hand, mostly maintains a light to medium roast. Unlike many low-quality coffees, there isn’t the slightest ‘woody’ taste or flavor, and it is smooth on the tongue, palate, and nose all the way. In most instances, specialty coffee has detailed flavor notes based on where it is harvested and its level of roast. Specialty coffee also has a keen balance between sweetness and acidity so that none overpowers the other.

Because specialty coffee is better tasting and is considered more friendly to the palate, it makes a better option than Starbucks coffee in this category.

Caffeine content / Nutritional value

Specialty coffee has been known to contain less caffeine than most Starbucks coffees and coffee blends. The average caffeine content for brewed specialty coffee is about 188mg for every 16 fl oz cup. When it comes to nutritional value, specialty coffee does not have much to write home about. It contains 0 calories, 0g carbohydrates, 0g protein, no vitamins or minerals, no fatty acids, and no amino acids. It, however, comes with 7mg of sodium in a 12 fl oz drink.

In comparison, Starbucks coffee has higher caffeine content, delivering a whopping 360mg of caffeine for every 16 fl oz cup. Much like specialty coffee, however, Starbucks coffee does not have much nutritional value, delivering 0 calories, 0g carbohydrates, 0g protein, zero vitamins and minerals, no fatty acids, and no amino acids. It does, however, contain 7mg of sodium per 12 fl oz serving.

Because Starbucks coffee packs a heavier caffeine punch per serving, it makes a better choice than Specialty coffee in this category, especially if caffeine is your main interest. The two, however, have the same nutritional value, placing them on equal footing in this regard.

Availability / Accessibility

Seeing as specialty coffee is produced in very few regions of the world, there is not an overabundance of the same in the market. For this reason, you are unlikely to find it in your local convenience store. There are, however, certain outlets that stock different types of specialty coffees from varying regions. You can also find it online, but it does not come cheap.

Starbucks coffee, on the other hand, is not difficult to find. There are many Starbucks outlets across the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, Asia, and other regions of the world where coffee is sold at affordable prices. There is also a downloadable mobile app that allows you to make an order from the comfort of your home or office, and your coffee is delivered to you.

Since Starbucks coffee is more abundant and easier to find, it makes a better choice in this category than specialty coffee which is rare and expensive.

Roast Level

Specialty coffee is made to have a smooth flavor and taste, so it almost always comes with a light or medium roast. This keeps it from acquiring a woody and smoky taste and allows it to maintain a certain mildness to it.

Starbucks coffee, in comparison, also presents several light roasts, but most of them fall in the medium to dark roast range. This makes them more ‘smoky’ and bitter when compared to specialty coffees.

Since specialty coffees have lighter roasts, they are milder and more pleasant, making them better than Starbucks coffee in this category.


One of the key tests that specialty coffee has to pass is the acidity test. Specialty coffees have a nice balance between sweetness and acidity so that neither overpowers the other. The acidity is mild so that it complements the taste of the coffee when it is brewed.

Starbucks coffee, comparably, also presents a nice acidity balance. While there are several dark roasts, the acidity is not too overpowering, and it blends well with the sweetness of the coffee.

Specialty coffee wins in this category because it delivers a keener acidity balance than Starbucks coffee which is slightly more acidic.


When it comes to aroma, specialty coffee is often described as nutty, flowery, and herby, with hints of smokiness. Because it is shipped two hours after packaging, it also has a characteristic ‘freshness’ to it.

Starbucks coffee, on the other hand, has a heavier smokiness, but it also has nutty and flowery notes, as well as certain hints of herbiness. There is, however, not much freshness to it.

Specialty coffee wins in this category because it has a better aroma than Starbucks coffee.


Because of the high quality of specialty coffees, they are described as full-bodied, mainly because they have a great mouthfeel. With specialty coffee, you can expect a certain degree of viscosity and creaminess imparted by the oils and sugars present in the coffee beans.

Starbucks coffee, on the other hand, is mainly described as medium-bodied because, while it does not have the viscosity and creaminess of specialty coffee, it offers just the right amount of each, especially for people who like filtered coffee.

Since specialty coffee is full-bodied, it makes a better choice than Starbucks coffee.

Growing regions

Specialty coffee is largely grown in three regions of the world; Kenya, Ethiopia, and Colombia. There are, however, several other countries such as Panama trying to finesse their techniques to produce specialty coffee.

Starbucks coffee, in comparison, is mainly produced in Latin America, parts of Asia, and parts of Africa. The quality of this coffee is not the best, but it is commendable.

Specialty coffee is grown in specific areas of the world, making it the winner in this category.

Starbucks vs. Specialty Coffee: A Comparison Overview

Starbucks Coffee Overview

Specialty Coffee

Starbucks is a popular chain of stores across the United States that offers many coffee drinks as well as other beverages and foods. The coffee is largely obtained from various parts of the globe, and while most of the coffees and blends are not considered specialty, their quality is commendable.

Seeing as the coffee is consumed by many people, Starbucks coffee comes in different variations. There are light roasts, medium roasts, and dark roasts, all of which present different qualities. This is one of the reasons why Starbucks coffee does not qualify as specialty coffee since most specialty coffee falls in the medium to light roast range.

Other reasons why this coffee is not considered specialty coffee is that the company does not indicate the place of origin, and the packaging does not state the actual date of roasting. Additionally, the coffee’s flavor notes are described in general terms, without any nuances as to what the flavor could be.

Starbucks coffee, however, meets community standards since it is made ethically, in a sustainable manner, and is tasty. The coffee production and sale also provide employment opportunities for many.

What we liked;

  • Easily accessible
  • Very affordable
  • The coffee is of good quality
  • There are different types of roast
  • It meets community standards

What we did not like;

Who it’s best suited for

Starbucks coffee is best suited for anyone looking to have good quality coffee at affordable prices.

Specialty Coffee Overview

Starbucks vs. Specialty Coffee

Like the name suggests, specialty coffee is produced under special circumstances and meets certain standards to qualify as such. It is of extremely high quality that is grown in very few regions of the world.

Specialty coffee maintains high quality and is shipped just two hours after roasting. Its packaging also clearly indicates where it is from and when it was roasted. There are not too many specialty coffee variations, but most of them come from Arabica and Robusta coffee berries.

To qualify as especially coffee, the coffee beans are subjected to various tests. They must score anything between 80 and 100 points to be labeled specialty coffee. The coffee is described as full-bodied, aromatic, smooth, flavorful, and rich. There are no tones of bitterness, smokiness, or woodiness.

What we liked;

  • It tastes great
  • It is of extremely high quality
  • Has a freshness to it
  • Does not have bitterness or smokiness

What we did not like;

  • Expensive
  • Hard to find

Who it’s best suited for

Specialty coffee is great for anyone looking to have the highest quality of coffee.

Final Verdict: So, which is better; Starbucks or Specialty coffee?

Specialty coffee is the better coffee because it offers better quality, taste, consistency, and freshness, making it great for anyone looking to have the best of the best. Starbucks coffee is also high quality, but it does not meet all criteria for specialty coffee.

FAQ Section

Which one came first between Starbucks and Specialty coffee?

Starbucks became popular before Specialty coffee, but Specialty coffee came in the early 1900s.

Is Starbucks considered a specialty coffee?

No, it is not, but it scores highly in the coffee grading system.

Does Starbucks support coffee farm workers?

Yes, the company has used more than $100 million to support coffee families.

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